by Anna Caro
At night her mother wakes her and she rolls over in the dry heat, finds her way outside in darkness, the earth firm under her bare feet. Her sister, and sometimes her cousin, sit sleepily on a fallen tree as her mother unwraps her most treasured possession, perhaps the only possession that is truly hers, from layers of linen. The brass telescope is heavy and old and smells of a far away city and the blistered hands of six generations of women. When she shuts one eye and holds it up to the sky, it is as if the whole firmament has suddenly closed in, and if she were to reach out she could hold a star in her own hand.
One day she asks why it is only women who can use the telescope, and her mother thinks for a moment.
“It is because men have all of this world. What we have is all the other worlds not yet discovered. All the mysteries.”
People his age, he thinks bitterly, are supposed to be gently rolling bowls across perfectly manicured greens, not juggling on a unicycle blindfolded, because that’s what this feels like. Little fingers in one hand, coffee in the other, huge folders of papers tucked under his arm because he can’t afford to retire now, oh no, cornflakes spilling out of his pocket and his ears aching from the terrible thud of music coming from the upstairs bedroom. As if it hadn’t been bad enough the first time round.
He can’t blame his daughter, of course he can’t; she’s sick and she needs treatment and she’s getting treatment, though who knows how much longer it will last, whether she’ll just turn and run again or end up with another good for nothing boyfriend who’ll give her whatever she craves, even if it will end up killing her.
He thinks, he thinks that if he could just get one nights good sleep it would be okay but of course at some ungodly hour there’s a rustling in the garden and his wife kicks him out of bed to investigate. He finds his grandson standing motionless in the garden, his head arched backwards, staring up at the sky.
“Come on, back to bed,” he says to the child, who doesn’t appear to have noticed him.
“Would you like some ice cream?” he tries. Still no movement.
“You know, when I was a child, before we moved out here, there was a war. We had to turn all the lights off so the enemy wouldn’t see us – there were no street lights, even the cars had to drive without headlights. Everyone was terrified of being killed, but all I could think was how bright all the stars were now. That got me through.”
“That’s crap,” says the child, marching inside. But his eyes are wet with tears.
Do they ask aircraft engineers if they are just failed air hostesses? Or marine biologists if they are just failed sailors? Because she has no desire for the years of tough physical training and the tasteless vacuum packed food and shitting in zero gravity, but somehow everyone seems to think that it must be her dream. Never mind the years of study it took her to get where she is today, never mind that she is on the cusp of the greatest discovery of her career; they assume that what she wants more than anything in the world is to climb into one of those cumbersome suits and blast off to the moon.
Oh, that and marriage. That’s the second question. Have you met anyone special?
She loves her city, here, on the edge of the continent, isolated by sea and mountains – sometimes it does seem that the only way out would be upwards, but she would never want to leave. She jogs gently along the waterfront each lunchtime, buys herself a panini from a cafe with tables looking out across the harbour before heading back. She consults the images she’s received from the world’s largest telescopes over an overly frothy latte.
Something isn’t right.
When her mother dies she is two days bus and one days walk away, living in a two room corrugated iron house with her brother and his family on the outskirts of the city, folding towels and straightening sheets and leaving a single flower and square of chocolate on each newly made hotel bed. She wouldn’t have gone back had it not been for the red light which appeared in the sky that morning, and which she took to be a sign.
They have television now in the village, and it blares rudely from inside as they lay the body out under the glowing sky. Scientists are perplexed… She looks down at her mother’s crumpled face. All the mysteries, she thinks.
He crossed a border illegally. Or he shot a man in a pub fight gone wrong. He boarded an international flight with condoms full of opiates in his stomach. Or a bomb in his bag or his shoes. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter what he did. When the priest still came to see him, which may have been days or may have been years before, he would listen to the slightly archaic words of a tongue still foreign to him and try and make meaning from them. It wasn’t the size of the sin that mattered, but how truly one asks for forgiveness.
When the red light first appears, and he sees just the edges of it through the high up window, the whole building seems to vibrate with the noise of footsteps and clanging gates and things falling or being thrown. He doesn’t know whether the movement is one of elation or of fear, and he doesn’t really care. All he cares about is that there is now An Event, something to mark the days.
He marches up and down the hallway, his arms swinging in wild circles, his face betraying his excitement; his mother’s coming home. His sister has slammed the door of her room and says she doesn’t want to have anything to do with her, and his brother just grizzles and looks confused. His grandfather warns him that they will have to take things slowly; this is only a quick visit, she won’t stay this time or the time after that, and she might not be feeling well and may get upset for no reason. Still, they say she’s doing well – this meeting wouldn’t have been allowed otherwise.
When he opens the door to his daughter the sky is glowing with red all over now, and it glistens onto her blonde hair as she smiles at him, then runs forward to scoop up her son. She is still scrawny, with the same yellowed skin and bad teeth, but her eyes are no longer dead and this time, maybe this time, he begins to hope.
Is this first contact? Is this an invasion or a diplomatic mission? In four buildings and in billions they hide, peeking out through the windows and the television.
These are the mysteries, she says, and this is my salvation and freedom, he says
This will eclipse and make meaningless all my years of work, she says, and I wish I could just get some sleep he says.
Even in the dark of the cell, the light brings forth brief snatches of a time before. He remembers a child – he had a child or he was a child? He isn’t sure. He remembers thick, wet vegetation underfoot and a hazy sun in the sky, singing, laughter, and forms of people silhouetted in the afternoon light, though he cannot see their features. He reaches out to them through the thick air, and though he receives no response, for the first time in many years he things that he may not be entirely alone.
There is clearly something more to this. She runs about the complex, as much for the adrenaline as for the actual speed. It extends across galaxies, a giant cross. Great, so the Christians are going to have a field day she murmurs, but like all of them she knows instantly what this means.
We shouldn’t be able to see this yet. Not so far away.
Great red arms stretch out across the universe and plant themselves on four worlds.
The whole facility quivers between excitement and fear. There is no corner of space to pull at and try and solve the puzzle, even if it took years; this is a true mystery.
Then. It’s… not so far away after all.
And the cross is no longer a cross, but a sphere wrapped firmly around the earth itself, and at four points it is glowing redder than anywhere else. One is right overhead, which makes them think – though it seems ridiculous, but what other explanation is there – that it is a deliberate message, a response. The other three seem to have no meaning, which confuses them further. Before they go away, and for no apparent reason, because the locations are full and accurately recorded – she writes down where they are on a napkin which she stuffs in the bottom of her bag.
In time, in a year or a decade, he is released to a country he does not know. They give him money he does not know the worth of, and a hostel bed paid for a month; after that he is on his own. He thumbs a ride to somewhere with a name he can scarcely pronounce and beds down on a bench in a park. All around him are the strange noises of a city, no louder than what he is used to but terrifying in their unfamiliarity; car horns instead of clanging gates, drunken singing instead of yelling.
The air above is thick with smog and the stars barely peep through, and he is thankful of that. He doesn’t think he can handle wide open spaces, the thought of something so far away.
She wishes she could remain here, but there is nothing for her now and she begins the walk back to where – if she is lucky – she will be able to catch a bus.
Later she will travel far away, to another country, leaving behind a daughter of her own who will call her sister-in-law mother and know her only as the sender of the money which pays for her shoes and her schoolbooks. She tells herself, the day of each birthday, that next year she will be back to show her daughter how to see the stars, but months turn into years and by the time she returns her daughter is almost a grown woman. She goes, one night, to take it from the hiding place, and panic strikes as it is no longer there.
Later, she will find her daughter sits outside every night gazing through the telescope she found by accident.
It will be years before she does anything. She will make her name first, publish extensively, give her name to this theory and that discovery. Then one day she will take all the leave she has been banking up and buy herself plane tickets. She will find a prison, heavily damaged in a riot and then finally closed down, a house with a child running round the yard and an older boy, a girl with a baby and a woman who may be their mother sitting on the grass, and a village missing a generation, where the sky is so black the stars pierce through it, as if they were being pushed forwards towards her.
Then she will return home, because this is home, after all, and this is the life she loves.
Later, he will finish school and, at his mother’s urging, apply for an engineering apprenticeship. He loves making things fit together smoothly, perfectly, that each can have an effect on another. When he has his own children he will remember when the sky glowed with red and everything started to fit together. Always, he will believe that that day something far away sent its first message. Something not quite human, and yet more human than all those who call themselves so.
Anna Caro lives in Wellington, New Zealand with her partner and two somewhat evil cats. She has had short fiction published in, amongst others, Khimairal Ink, Aphelion and Antipodean SF. Her website is at http://www.pterodaustrodreams.org.